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Gay Street (Knoxville)

Gay Street (Knoxville)

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Gay Street is a street in Knoxville, Tennessee
Knoxville, Tennessee
Founded in 1786, Knoxville is the third-largest city in the U.S. state of Tennessee, U.S.A., behind Memphis and Nashville, and is the county seat of Knox County. It is the largest city in East Tennessee, and the second-largest city in the Appalachia region...

, USA, that traverses the heart of the city's downtown area. Since its development in the 1790s, Gay Street has served as the city's principal financial and commercial thoroughfare, and has played a primary role in the city's historical and cultural development. The street contains Knoxville's largest office buildings and oldest commercial structures. Several buildings on Gay Street have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places
National Register of Historic Places
The National Register of Historic Places is the United States government's official list of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects deemed worthy of preservation...

.

Part of Charles McClung
Charles McClung
Charles McClung was an American pioneer, politician, and surveyor best known for drawing up the original plat of Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1791. While Knoxville has since expanded to many times its original size, the city's downtown area still roughly follows McClung's 1791 grid...

's original 1791 plat of Knoxville, Gay Street was a focal point for the early political activity of both the city as well as the State of Tennessee. By 1850, Gay Street was home to three-fourths of Knoxville's commercial activity, and in 1854, the street became Knoxville's first paved road. On the eve of the Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

, Gay Street was the site of simultaneous Union
Union Army
The Union Army was the land force that fought for the Union during the American Civil War. It was also known as the Federal Army, the U.S. Army, the Northern Army and the National Army...

 and Confederate
Confederate States of America
The Confederate States of America was a government set up from 1861 to 1865 by 11 Southern slave states of the United States of America that had declared their secession from the U.S...

 recruiting rallies. After the war, Gay Street saw extensive commercial development as railroad construction brought an industrial boom to Knoxville.

Gay Street and events that took place on Gay Street have been mentioned in the works of James Agee
James Agee
James Rufus Agee was an American author, journalist, poet, screenwriter and film critic. In the 1940s, he was one of the most influential film critics in the U.S...

, Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy is an American novelist and playwright. He has written ten novels, spanning the Southern Gothic, Western, and modernist genres. He received the Pulitzer Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction for The Road...

, Mark Twain
Mark Twain
Samuel Langhorne Clemens , better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American author and humorist...

, and George Washington Harris
George Washington Harris
George Washington Harris was an American humorist best known for his character, "Sut Lovingood," an Appalachian backwoods reveler fond of telling tall tales...

. Cultural institutions established along Gay Street include the Lawson McGhee Library
Lawson McGhee Public Library
The Lawson McGhee Public Library is the main library for Knoxville, Tennessee. It is located at 500 West Church Avenue in downtown Knoxville. The Beck Cultural Exchange Center, the East Tennessee Historical Center and numerous library branches are also associated with the Lawson McGhee Public...

 (1885), the Bijou Theatre
Bijou Theatre (Knoxville)
The Bijou Theatre is a theater located in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. Built in 1909 as an addition to the Lamar House Hotel, the theater has at various times served as performance venue of both traditional theatre and vaudeville, a second-run moviehouse, a commencement stage for the city's...

 (1909), the Riviera Theatre (1920), the Tennessee Theatre
Tennessee Theatre
The Tennessee Theatre is a 1920s-era movie palace, located within the Burwell Building in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, at 604 South Gay Street.-History:...

 (1928), and the East Tennessee History Center (2004). The Knoxville Journal, Knoxville Whig
Knoxville Whig
The Whig was a polemical American newspaper published and edited by William G. "Parson" Brownlow in the mid-nineteenth century. As its name implies, the paper's primary purpose was the promotion and defense of Whig Party political figures and ideals...

, and Knoxville Register
Knoxville Register
The Knoxville Register was an American newspaper published primarily in Knoxville, Tennessee, during the 19th century. Founded in 1816, the paper was East Tennessee's dominant newspaper until 1863, when its pro-secession editor, Jacob Austin Sperry , was forced to flee advancing Union forces at the...

were all once headquartered on Gay Street, and radio stations WNOX
WNOX
WNOX is a radio station in the Knoxville, Tennessee area. It broadcasts a news-talk format.WNOX operates a 100,000-watt transmitter, located on Cross Mountain north of Briceville, Tennessee...

 and WROL
WATE-TV
WATE-TV is the ABC-affiliated television station for Eastern Tennessee licensed to Knoxville. It broadcasts a high definition digital signal on UHF channel 26 from a transmitter on Sharp's Ridge in North Knoxville. The station can also be seen on Charter channel 6 as well as Comcast and Knology...

 both broadcasted from Gay Street at various times during the 20th century.

Route and landmarks


Gay Street runs for about a mile-and-a-half from its northern terminus at Emory Place to its southern terminus at its intersection with Sevier Avenue and Blount Avenue on the south side of the Tennessee River
Tennessee River
The Tennessee River is the largest tributary of the Ohio River. It is approximately 652 miles long and is located in the southeastern United States in the Tennessee Valley. The river was once popularly known as the Cherokee River, among other names...

. The road is divided into North Gay and South Gay by the tracks of the Southern Railway, with South Gay being the older and more densely developed half.

From north to south:
  • 500 block, North Gay, from Emory Place to West Fifth Avenue— this section of Gay Street traverses the Emory Place Historic District
    Emory Place Historic District
    The Emory Place Historic District is a historic district in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA, located just north of the city's downtown area. The district consists of several commercial, residential, religious, and public buildings that developed around a late nineteenth century train and trolley...

    , and intersects Emory Place a block east of Broadway, opposite Old Gray Cemetery. First Christian Church and St. John's Lutheran Church lie adjacent to this section of Gay, although they have Fifth Avenue and Broadway addresses, respectively.

  • 400 block, North Gay, from West Fifth to West Magnolia.

  • From West Magnolia to East Magnolia, North Gay passes under Interstate 40
    Interstate 40
    Interstate 40 is the third-longest major east–west Interstate Highway in the United States, after I-90 and I-80. Its western end is at Interstate 15 in Barstow, California; its eastern end is at a concurrency of U.S. Route 117 and North Carolina Highway 132 in Wilmington, North Carolina...

    . The area under the interstate is used for parking space.

  • 300 block, North Gay, from East Magnolia to West Depot Avenue. This section of Gay Street is part of a merged stretch of U.S. Route 70
    U.S. Route 70
    U.S. Route 70 is an east–west United States highway that runs for 2,385 miles from eastern North Carolina to east-central Arizona. As can be derived from its number, it is a major east–west highway of the Southern and Southwestern United States...

    , U.S. Route 11
    U.S. Route 11
    U.S. Route 11 is a north–south United States highway extending 1,645 miles across the eastern United States. The southern terminus of the route is at U.S. Route 90 in the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge in eastern New Orleans, Louisiana. The northern terminus is at the United...

    , and State Route 1, which joins Gay Street from the east via Magnolia and diverges from Gay to the west via Depot. Regas Restaurant dominates the eastern half of this block.

  • The Gay Street Viaduct, which crosses the Southern Railway tracks. The tracks comprise a large railyard that occupies a natural declivity about 15 feet (4.6 m) below street level. From the viaduct, there is a sweeping view of the Old City
    Old City (Knoxville)
    The Old City is a neighborhood in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA, located at the northeast corner of the city's downtown area. Originally part of a raucous and vice-ridden section of town known as "The Bowery," the Old City has since been revitalized through extensive redevelopment efforts carried out...

     to the east and the Jackson Avenue warehouses to the south. The Southern Railroad Terminal
    Southern Terminal, Knoxville, Tennessee
    The Southern Terminal is a former railway complex located at 306 West Depot Avenue in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. The complex, which includes a passenger terminal and freight depot adjacent to a large railyard, was built in 1904 by the Southern Railway. Both the terminal and freight depot were...

     lies along the tracks, immediately east of the viaduct.

  • 100 block, South Gay, from Jackson Avenue to Vine Avenue. This section of Gay Street is part of the Southern Terminal and Warehouse Historic District. Notable buildings include the 10-story Sterchi Lofts building, the Emporium, and the Commerce Building.

  • 200 block, South Gay, from Vine Avenue to Summit Hill Drive.

  • 300 block, South Gay, from Summit Hill Drive to Wall Avenue; this is the northernmost block of the Gay Street Commercial Historic District, which stretches along South Gay from Summit Hill to Church Avenue. Notable buildings on this block include the five-story Century Building and the Knoxville Visitors Center.

  • 400 block, South Gay, from Wall Avenue to Union Avenue. A narrow alley divides the buildings on the western half of this block from the buildings facing Market Square
    Market Square, Knoxville
    Market Square is a pedestrian mall located in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. Established in 1854 as a market place for regional farmers, the square has developed over the decades into a multipurpose venue that accommodates events ranging from concerts to political rallies, and has long provided a...

     to the west. Notable buildings include the Kress Building, the McNulty Building (Mast Department Store), the seven-story Miller's department store building, and the Woodruff Building. Many of the buildings on this block were built in the wake of the so-called "Million Dollar Fire," which destroyed the entire east side of the 400 block on April 8, 1897.

  • 500 block, South Gay, from Union Avenue to Clinch Avenue. The western half of this block adjoins Krutch Park. Notable buildings include the Fidelity Building
    Fidelity Building (Knoxville)
    The Fidelity Building is an office building in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. Initially constructed in 1871 for the wholesale firm Cowan, McClung and Company, the building was home to Fidelity-Bankers Trust Company during the mid-twentieth century, and has since been renovated for use as office space...

    , the Riviera Theatre, the S & W Cafeteria, the Farragut Hotel building, and The Holston
    The Holston
    The Holston is a condominium high-rise located at 531 South Gay Street in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. Completed in 1913 as the headquarters for the Holston National Bank, the fourteen-story building was the tallest in Knoxville until the construction in the late 1920s of the Andrew Johnson Hotel,...

    .

  • 600 block, South Gay, from Clinch Avenue to Church Avenue. This is the southernmost block in the Gay Street Commercial Historic District. Notable buildings include the Tennessee Theatre
    Tennessee Theatre
    The Tennessee Theatre is a 1920s-era movie palace, located within the Burwell Building in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, at 604 South Gay Street.-History:...

    , the Mechanics' Bank building
    Mechanics' Bank and Trust Company Building
    The Mechanics' Bank and Trust Company Building is an office building located at 612 South Gay Street in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. Built in 1907 for the Mechanics' Bank and Trust Company, the building now houses offices for several law firms and financial agencies...

    , and the Journal Arcade. "The Oarsman," a sculpture created in 1988 by David Phelps, stands at the corner of Church and Gay.

  • 700 block, South Gay, from Church Avenue to Cumberland Avenue. The western half of this block is a parking lot.

  • 800 block, South Gay, from Cumberland Avenue to Main Street. The First Tennessee Plaza
    First Tennessee Plaza
    The First Tennessee Plaza, or Plaza Tower, is an office high-rise located at 800 Gay Street in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. Completed in 1978, the 27-story structure is Knoxville's tallest building and an iconic part of the city's skyline...

    , Knoxville's tallest building, occupies the entire eastern half of this block. The Bijou Theatre, Knoxville's oldest commercial structure, occupies the western half.

  • 900 block, South Gay, from Main to Hill Avenue. The Riverview Tower
    Riverview Tower
    The Riverview Tower is an office high-rise located at 900 Gay Street in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. Completed in 1985, the 24-story structure is Knoxville's second-tallest building, and along with its sister building, the First Tennessee Plaza, anchors Knoxville's downtown office market...

     and Andrew Johnson Building
    Andrew Johnson Building
    The Andrew Johnson Building is a high-rise office building in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. Completed in 1930, the structure was Knoxville's tallest building for nearly a half-century. The building was originally home to the Andrew Johnson Hotel, and is now used for office space by Knox...

     occupy the eastern half of this block, and the Knox County Courthouse (which faces Main) occupies the western half. The City-County Building
    Knoxville City-County Building
    The Knoxville City-County Building is a building at 400 Main Street in Knoxville, Tennessee that houses the offices of the city government of Knoxville and the county government of Knox County, Tennessee. It also houses the Knox County Jail. The building stands ten stories, and contains of office...

     dominates the southwest corner of the Gay/Hill intersection. The visitor center for Blount Mansion
    Blount Mansion
    The Blount Mansion, also known as William Blount Mansion, located at 200 West Hill Avenue in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, was the home of the only territorial governor of the Southwest Territory, William Blount . Blount, also a signer of the United States Constitution and a U.S...

     stands at the southeast corner.

  • The Gay Street Bridge
    Gay Street Bridge
    The Gay Street Bridge is a vehicle bridge that crosses the Tennessee River in Knoxville, Tennessee. Completed in 1898, the bridge is the oldest of four vehicle bridges connecting Downtown Knoxville with South Knoxville, the other three being the Henley Street Bridge, the Buck Karnes Bridge , and...

    , a 1512 feet (460.9 m) steel truss bridge that crosses the Tennessee River. The bridge passes over Neyland Drive (part of Highway 158
    Tennessee State Route 158
    Tennessee State Route 158 is a west-to-east highway in Knox County in the U.S. state of Tennessee.The route is 4.5 miles long. Its western terminus is in Knoxville, Tennessee at TN 1. Its eastern terminus is in Knoxville at Interstate 40...

    ) and the riverfront before proceeding across the river to South Knoxville
    South Knoxville
    South Knoxville is the section of Knoxville, Tennessee, USA, that lies south of the Tennessee River. It is concentrated along Chapman Highway , Alcoa Highway , Maryville Pike , Sevierville Pike, and adjacent roads, and includes the neighborhoods of Lindbergh Forest, Island Home Park, Old Sevier,...

    .

  • Intersection with Sevier and Blount avenues just across the bridge. Blount Avenue continues westward, connecting Gay with Chapman
    David C. Chapman
    David Carpenter Chapman was an American soldier, politician, and business leader from Knoxville, Tennessee who led the effort to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1920s and 1930s. Mount Chapman and Chapman Highway David Carpenter Chapman (9 August 1876 - 26 July 1944) was...

     Highway. Sevier Avenue continues eastward toward the Island Home Park
    Island Home Park
    Island Home Park is a neighborhood in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA, located in the southeastern part of the city along the Tennessee River. Developed as a streetcar suburb in the early 1900s, the neighborhood retains most of its original houses and streetscapes, and is home to the city's largest...

     area.

Early development


Gay Street was part of the original plat of Knoxville drawn up by surveyor Charles McClung
Charles McClung
Charles McClung was an American pioneer, politician, and surveyor best known for drawing up the original plat of Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1791. While Knoxville has since expanded to many times its original size, the city's downtown area still roughly follows McClung's 1791 grid...

 in 1791. The street originally stretched from the river to what is now Church Avenue (Knoxville's original northern boundary). Within a few years, the boundary had been extended to Clinch Avenue, effectively adding what is now Gay Street's 600 block. The eastern half of this block was originally part of the land set aside by Knoxville founder James White
James White (general)
James White was an American pioneer and soldier who founded Knoxville, Tennessee, in the early 1790s. Born in Rowan County, North Carolina, White served as a captain in the county's militia during the American Revolutionary War...

 for Blount College, the forerunner of the University of Tennessee
University of Tennessee
The University of Tennessee is a public land-grant university headquartered at Knoxville, Tennessee, United States...

. In its early years, Gay Street was known as "Market Street" or "Broad Street." The name "Gay Street," which was probably inspired by the Gay Street in Baltimore
Gay Street (Baltimore)
Gay Street is a street in Baltimore, Maryland that gets its name from Nicholas Ruxton Gay, who surveyed the area in 1747. It begins at the intersection of East Pratt Street near the Baltimore World Trade Center and proceeds north and east through Baltimore until it crosses Orleans Street and...

, had been applied by 1808.

The intersection of Gay and Main was the focal point of late 18th century Knoxville, with the courthouse initially located at its northwest corner and the jail located at its southeast corner. Knoxville's first store, established in 1792 by brothers Samuel and Nathaniel Cowan, was located on the northeast corner of this intersection, and the city's first major hotel (now part of the Bijou) was built on the southwest corner in 1817. On January 11, 1796, the first Tennessee state constitutional convention convened at the office of War Department agent Colonel David Henley
Colonel David Henley
David Henley was a Continental Army officer during the American Revolutionary War, who served as George Washington's intelligence officer and Prisoner of war commandant...

, which was located at the corner of Gay and Church.

This early political and commercial activity on Gay Street helped the street develop into Knoxville's main throroughfare, and by 1850, Gay Street was home to three-fourths of Knoxville's commercial activity. In 1851, the street's sidewalks were widened to 11 feet (3.4 m). Two years later, Gay Street was macadamized and paved with cobblestone
Cobblestone
Cobblestones are stones that were frequently used in the pavement of early streets. "Cobblestone" is derived from the very old English word "cob", which had a wide range of meanings, one of which was "rounded lump" with overtones of large size...

s. Upon completion of the railroad in 1855, Gay Street was extended still further northward to what are now the Southern Railway tracks.

The Civil War


In the months leading up to the Civil War, prominent pro-Union and pro-Secession supporters spoke at Gay Street venues such as the Lamar House Hotel, while the Knoxville Whig and Knoxville Register, which were arguably the mouthpieces for East Tennessee Unionism and secessionism, respectively, were both headquartered on Gay Street. In April 1861, Union and Confederate supporters held simultanenous recruiting rallies at opposite ends of Gay Street. Future president Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson was the 17th President of the United States . As Vice-President of the United States in 1865, he succeeded Abraham Lincoln following the latter's assassination. Johnson then presided over the initial and contentious Reconstruction era of the United States following the American...

 spoke at the Union rally, and a shootout nearly erupted when several Confederate recruits attempted to interrupt his speech.

Union forces under Ambrose Burnside
Ambrose Burnside
Ambrose Everett Burnside was an American soldier, railroad executive, inventor, industrialist, and politician from Rhode Island, serving as governor and a U.S. Senator...

 occupied Knoxville in September 1863, and Burnside chose as his headquarters the home of John Hervey Crozier
John Hervey Crozier
John Hervey Crozier was an American attorney and politician active primarily in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA, during the mid-nineteenth century...

 at the corner of Gay and Church streets (now the location of the Farragut Hotel). Union general William P. Sanders
William P. Sanders
William Price Sanders was an officer in the Union Army in the American Civil War, who died at the Siege of Knoxville.-Birth and early years:...

, who was wounded in a skirmish with Confederate troops on the outskirts of town in November 1863, died at the Lamar House Hotel, which had been converted into a hospital.

Commercial development


After the Civil War, several major banks were established during Knoxville's post-Civil War commercial boom, including Mechanics' National Bank (1882) and Holston National Bank (1890), both of which would eventually build headquarters that still stand on Gay Street. After the Great Depression, Hamilton National Bank (operating out of the Holston building) grew to become the dominant bank in East Tennessee. In the 1970s, this bank was seized by United American Bank president Jake Butcher
Jake Butcher
Jacob Franklin "Jake" Butcher was a U.S. banker and politician who built a financial empire in East Tennessee, was the Democratic Party nominee for governor of Tennessee in 1978 and the primary promoter of the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, and who lost his business and his personal...

, who built the Plaza and Riverview towers before being indicted for bank fraud in the 1980s.

In the early 1830s, James Cowan (a nephew of Samuel and Nathaniel Cowan) and his brother-in-law, Perez Dickinson, opened a large general store at the corner of Gay and Main. During the 1850s, Cowan and Dickinson merged their interests with the McClung brothers (children of surveyor Charles McClung) to form the wholesaling giant, Cowan, McClung and Company. In the years following the Civil War, this company was the most profitable in Tennessee, and anchored Knoxville's powerful wholesaling sector. The company's four-story headquarters, erected on Gay Street's 500 block in 1871, was the cornerstone of what is now known as the Gay Street Commercial Historic District.

Sterchi Brothers, founded in 1888, grew to become the world's largest furniture store chain by 1930, and built its 10-story headquarters at 114 South Gay in 1928. W. W. Woodruff and Company, founded in 1865, maintained a presence on Gay Street into the late 20th century. Gay Street was home to many of Knoxville's major department stores throughout the first half of the 20th century, most notably Miller's and S. H. George's.

Cultural development


Throughout most of the 19th century, the Lamar House Hotel on Gay Street was the premier gathering place for Knoxville's upper class. During the 1870s and 1880s, the hotel's masquerade balls served oysters, imported wines, and cigars, and drew the likes of artist Lloyd Branson
Lloyd Branson
Enoch Lloyd Branson was an American artist best known for his portraits of Southern politicians and depictions of early East Tennessee history....

 (whose studio was also located on Gay Street) and author Frances Hodgson Burnett
Frances Hodgson Burnett
Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett was an English playwright and author. She is best known for her children's stories, in particular The Secret Garden , A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy.Born Frances Eliza Hodgson, she lived in Cheetham Hill, Manchester...

. By the 1930s, the Farragut Hotel (1917) and the Andrew Johnson Hotel (1930) had become Knoxville's premier hotels. Country music singer Hank Williams spent the last night of his life at the latter on New Year's Eve, 1952.

Knoxville's first major performance venue, Staub's Theatre, was built on Gay Street's 800 block in 1872, and in its early years showcased acts ranging from Payson's English Opera Troupe to vaudeville acts and wrestling matches. The Bijou Theatre, constructed as an addition to the Lamar House Hotel in 1909, would witness performances by the likes of the Marx Brothers
Marx Brothers
The Marx Brothers were an American family comedy act, originally from New York City, that enjoyed success in Vaudeville, Broadway, and motion pictures from the early 1900s to around 1950...

, Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie was an American jazz trumpet player, bandleader, singer, and composer dubbed "the sound of surprise".Together with Charlie Parker, he was a major figure in the development of bebop and modern jazz...

, and the Ballet Russe. During the late 1920s, the Tennessee Theatre eclipsed the Bijou as Knoxville's major performance venue, and served as the city's first-run movie house until the 1950s.

Knoxville's two oldest radio stations, WNOX and WROL, broadcast from Gay Street during the 1920s and 1930s. WNOX featured Lowell Blanchard's Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, initially broadcast from the Andrew Johnson Hotel, which helped launch the careers of performers such as Roy Acuff
Roy Acuff
Roy Claxton Acuff was an American country music singer, fiddler, and promoter. Known as the King of Country Music, Acuff is often credited with moving the genre from its early string band and "hoedown" format to the star singer-based format that helped make it internationally successful.Acuff...

 and Archie Campbell
Archie Campbell
Archie Campbell was an American writer and star of Hee Haw, a popular long-running country-flavored network television variety show...

, and remained a popular noon-time radio show until the 1950s. WROL, which broadcast from the Central House Hotel (next to the Farragut), the Mechanics' Bank building, and later from a North Gay location, was best known in this period for its host, eccentric local businessman Cas Walker
Cas Walker
Orton Caswell Walker , better known as Cas Walker, was a Tennessee businessman, politician, and personality on television and radio. Walker founded a successful chain of small grocery stores that grew to include several dozen stores scattered throughout the Knoxville, Tennessee vicinity as well as...

.

Structural improvements


Knoxville's first permanent bridge over the Tennessee River was constructed at the south end of Gay Street in 1867, but stood for just a short time. In 1880, G. W. Saulpaw built what became known as the "Saulpaw bridge" at the site, which stood until it was replaced by the current Gay Street Bridge
Gay Street Bridge
The Gay Street Bridge is a vehicle bridge that crosses the Tennessee River in Knoxville, Tennessee. Completed in 1898, the bridge is the oldest of four vehicle bridges connecting Downtown Knoxville with South Knoxville, the other three being the Henley Street Bridge, the Buck Karnes Bridge , and...

 in 1898. At the street's north end, an iron bridge was built across the Southern Railway tracks in 1876, easing pedestrian access between the north and south sides of the tracks. The first Gay Street Viaduct across the tracks was built in 1919, and the current viaduct
Viaduct
A viaduct is a bridge composed of several small spans. The term viaduct is derived from the Latin via for road and ducere to lead something. However, the Ancient Romans did not use that term per se; it is a modern derivation from an analogy with aqueduct. Like the Roman aqueducts, many early...

 was built in 2005.

In 1876, the Knoxville Streetcar Company built the city's first trolley line along Gay Street. The trolleys, initially pulled by horses, were electrified by William Gibbs McAdoo
William Gibbs McAdoo
William Gibbs McAdoo, Jr. was an American lawyer and political leader who served as a U.S. Senator, United States Secretary of the Treasury and director of the United States Railroad Administration...

 in 1890. The Gay Street Bridge originally contained trolley tracks, which helped spark the development of South Knoxville
South Knoxville
South Knoxville is the section of Knoxville, Tennessee, USA, that lies south of the Tennessee River. It is concentrated along Chapman Highway , Alcoa Highway , Maryville Pike , Sevierville Pike, and adjacent roads, and includes the neighborhoods of Lindbergh Forest, Island Home Park, Old Sevier,...

, especially the Island Home Park
Island Home Park
Island Home Park is a neighborhood in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA, located in the southeastern part of the city along the Tennessee River. Developed as a streetcar suburb in the early 1900s, the neighborhood retains most of its original houses and streetscapes, and is home to the city's largest...

 and Vestal areas. Trolleys were a common site on Gay Street until the trolley lines were eliminated and the tracks paved over in the late 1940s.

Decline and revitalization


The development of suburbs on the periphery of Knoxville in the 1950s led to the rise of suburban shopping centers, and Gay Street, which had long struggled with traffic congestion and lack of parking, began to decline as a major retail corridor. In 1954, Rich's (which had purchased S. H. George's) moved to a new location, and Miller's abandoned plans to build a new store on Gay Street's 800 block. In an attempt to revitalize the downtown area, several Knoxville businessmen formed the Downtown Knoxville Association in 1956. Following the DKA's suggestions, more parking space was created for Gay Street businesses and storefronts were renovated, but efforts to revitalize Gay Street as a major commercial corridor were largely unsuccessful.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Gay Street transitioned from a retail corridor to an office market, symbolized by the erection of the Plaza and Riverview towers, and the renovation of the Andrew Johnson Hotel as an office building. During the same period, successful efforts to save the Bijou laid the foundation for the preservation group Knox Heritage, and more focus was placed on the preservation of Gay Street's historical integrity. More recently, a number of Gay Street high-rises, including the Holston, Sterchi Lofts, and the upper levels of the Burwell Building, have been successfully renovated as downtown condominium space.

Literary references



Humorist George Washington Harris
George Washington Harris
George Washington Harris was an American humorist best known for his character, "Sut Lovingood," an Appalachian backwoods reveler fond of telling tall tales...

, who lived on Gay Street during the mid-19th century and died at the Atkin Hotel on North Gay, made one of the earliest literary references to a Gay Street institution in his 1867 short story, "Eaves-Dropping a Lodge of Free-Masons." In this story, Harris's rustic protagonist, Sut Lovingood, claims that a powerful group of Freemasons once met on the second level of the Knox County Courthouse.

In the opening chapter of his Pulitzer Prize
Pulitzer Prize
The Pulitzer Prize is a U.S. award for achievements in newspaper and online journalism, literature and musical composition. It was established by American publisher Joseph Pulitzer and is administered by Columbia University in New York City...

-winning novel, A Death in the Family
A Death in the Family
A Death in the Family is an autobiographical novel by author James Agee, set in Knoxville, Tennessee. He began writing it in 1948, but it was not quite complete when he died in 1955. It was edited and released posthumously in 1957 by editor David McDowell. Agee's widow and children were left with...

, author James Agee
James Agee
James Rufus Agee was an American author, journalist, poet, screenwriter and film critic. In the 1940s, he was one of the most influential film critics in the U.S...

 recounts taking a trip with his father into downtown Knoxville in 1915 to see a movie at Gay Street's Majestic Theater. Agee remembered the theater's "exhilarating smell of stale tobacco, rank sweat, perfume and dirty drawers." He also recalled the "great bright letters" of storefront signs of various Gay Street businesses, and remembered being proud of himself for knowing how to pronounce "Sterchi."

Author Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy is an American novelist and playwright. He has written ten novels, spanning the Southern Gothic, Western, and modernist genres. He received the Pulitzer Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction for The Road...

 makes several references to Gay Street in his 1979 novel, Suttree
Suttree
Suttree is a semi-autobiographical novel by Cormac McCarthy, published in 1979. Set in 1951 in Knoxville, Tennessee, the novel follows Cornelius Suttree, who has repudiated his former life of privilege to become a fisherman on the Tennessee River. The novel has a fragmented structure with many...

, which is set in Knoxville in the early 1950s. The novel's title character walks along Gay Street as the "Late noon traffic pushed sluggishly through the heat and trolleys clicked past dimly dragging sparks from the wires overhead," and observes pawnshops displaying "Wares to find a thousand trades." He later passes a shopfront with "dusty charlatan's props in the window, small boxes of sneeze powder, cigars laced with cordite, a stamped tin inkstain."

Mark Twain
Mark Twain
Samuel Langhorne Clemens , better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American author and humorist...

 gave an account of the 1882 Mabry-O'Connor shootout (which took place on Gay Street's 600 block) in his book, Life on the Mississippi
Life on the Mississippi
Life on the Mississippi is a memoir by Mark Twain, of his days as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River before the American Civil War, and also a travel book, recounting his trip along the Mississippi many years after the War....

. More recently, the Bijou Theatre provided the inspiration for the 1974 David Madden
David Madden (novelist)
David Madden is an American novelist, poet, author of literary criticism, and playwright.Born in 1933 in Knoxville, Tennessee, Madden is a graduate of the University of Tennessee. Since the 1970s he has been a professor at Louisiana State University where he has served as writer in residence and...

 novel, Bijou. Author Jack Mauro published a collection of Knoxville-based short stories
Short story
A short story is a work of fiction that is usually written in prose, often in narrative format. This format tends to be more pointed than longer works of fiction, such as novellas and novels. Short story definitions based on length differ somewhat, even among professional writers, in part because...

 entitled Gay Street in 2000.

Gay Street Commercial Historic District


The Gay Street Commercial Historic District, added to the National Register in 1986, originally consisted of 35 buildings constructed circa 1880—1940 along Gay Street and adjacent side streets. The buildings range from 1880s-era wholesaling outlets to 1930s-era movie theaters. One of the buildings listed, the Fouche Block, was demolished in 1993. Another listing, the Hope Clock, was moved to West Knoxville in 2004, and was replaced by a new street clock in 2007. One notable non-contributing building is the 1905 Miller's building, which was not included due to extensive exterior modifications which have since been removed.

The Southern Terminal and most of Gay Street's 100 block were listed on the National Register as contributing properties within the Southern Terminal and Warehouses Historic District. The Andrew Johnson Hotel, the Bijou Theatre (listed as the Lamar House Hotel), and the Knox County Courthouse were all listed individually. Notable contributing properties in the Gay Street Commercial Historic District include:
  • Century Building (312 South Gay), a five story Victorian Vernacular structure built in 1886. This building is sometimes called the Haynes-Henson Building after its long-time occupant, the Haynes-Henson Shoe Company.

  • McNulty Building (402 South Gay), a four-story Vernacular Commercial structure built in 1898, and named for its original occupant, McNulty Grocery and Dry Goods Company. This building is currently home to a branch of the Mast General Store.

  • Gay Theater (403 South Gay), a two-story Colonial Revival-style building constructed in 1910. This building is currently home to the Lerner Lofts condominiums.

  • Kress Building (417-421 South Gay), a four-story Art Deco-style structure built circa 1925. The Kress Building is currently home to J's Mega Mart.

  • Woodruff Building (424 South Gay), a five-story Classical Revival-style building constructed in 1905 for the hardware firm, W. W. Woodruff and Company. Woodruff's original building at this site burned in the "Million Dollar Fire" of 1897, and the second burned in 1904. This building is currently home to a restaurant, the Downtown Grill and Brewery.

  • Arnold, Henegar, Doyle and Company Building (428 South Gay), a five story Victorian Commercial and Romanesque Revival-style building constructed in 1898. Arnold, Henegar, Doyle and Company was a late-19th century boot and shoe wholesaler. This building is currently home to Sapphire, a restaurant.

  • Sanford, Chamberlain and Albers Company Building (430 South Gay), a three-story Vernacular Commercial-style building constructed in 1870 and modified circa 1910. The building was initially home to the drug company Sanford, Chamberlain and Albers, and later home to Szabo's tailor shop. The building is now occupied by Arby's.

  • Fidelity Building
    Fidelity Building (Knoxville)
    The Fidelity Building is an office building in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. Initially constructed in 1871 for the wholesale firm Cowan, McClung and Company, the building was home to Fidelity-Bankers Trust Company during the mid-twentieth century, and has since been renovated for use as office space...

    (500-504 South Gay), a four-story Italianate building constructed in 1871, and renovated by the architectural firm Baumann and Baumann
    Baumann family (architects)
    The Baumann family was a family of American architects who practiced in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the surrounding region, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It included Joseph F. Baumann , his brother, Albert B. Baumann, Sr. , and Albert's son, Albert B. Baumann, Jr....

     in 1929. This building was initially home to the wholesaling firm, Cowan, McClung and Company.

  • Riviera Theatre (510 South Gay), a two-story Art Deco-style theater constructed in 1920.

  • S & W Cafeteria (516-518 South Gay), a two-story Art Deco-style building constructed in 1936.

  • Athletic House (520 South Gay), a two-story Vernacular Commercial building constructed in 1923.

  • Central House Hotel (522 South Gay), a three-story Italianate building constructed in 1875.

  • Farragut Hotel (526-530 South Gay), a nine-story building with Beaux-Arts elements, constructed in 1917. The Farragut replaced the Imperial Hotel, which burned in 1916. This building is currently a condominium, and its ground floor is occupied by a restaurant, the French Market.

  • The Holston
    The Holston
    The Holston is a condominium high-rise located at 531 South Gay Street in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. Completed in 1913 as the headquarters for the Holston National Bank, the fourteen-story building was the tallest in Knoxville until the construction in the late 1920s of the Andrew Johnson Hotel,...

    (531 South Gay), a 14-story Neoclassical-style building constructed 1912-1913 for the Holston National Bank. This building is now a condominium.

  • Tennessee Theatre
    Tennessee Theatre
    The Tennessee Theatre is a 1920s-era movie palace, located within the Burwell Building in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, at 604 South Gay Street.-History:...

    , or the Burwell Building (600 South Gay), a 12-story Spanish/Moorish-style building constructed in 1907. The Tennessee Theatre, which was added to the building 1928, is still used as a performance venue, while the upper floors of the building now house condominiums.

  • Mechanics' Bank and Trust Company Building
    Mechanics' Bank and Trust Company Building
    The Mechanics' Bank and Trust Company Building is an office building located at 612 South Gay Street in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. Built in 1907 for the Mechanics' Bank and Trust Company, the building now houses offices for several law firms and financial agencies...

    (612 South Gay), a six-story Beaux-Arts structure originally built in 1907, and raised two stories in 1923.

  • Journal Arcade (618-620 South Gay), a two-story Classical Revival-style building constructed in 1924, and designed by architect R. F. Graf
    R. F. Graf
    Richard Franklin Graf was an American architect, active primarily in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the vicinity, in the early 20th century. His works include Stratford Mansion , Sterchi Lofts , St. John's Lutheran Church , and the Journal Arcade . His home, the Prairie School-inspired Graf-Cullum...

    . This building was originally the press room of the long-time Knoxville newspaper, The Knoxville Journal.

  • Cal Johnson Building (311-313 State Street), a three-story structure built in 1898 by prominent African-American businessman, Cal Johnson
    Cal Johnson (businessman)
    Caldonia Fackler Johnson was an American businessman and philanthropist, active primarily in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries...

    (1844–1925). Johnson also operated a saloon known as the "Poplar Log" at the corner of Gay and Vine in the early 20th century.

  • The Glencoe (615 State Street), a three-story Classical Revival-style building constructed in 1905. The Glencoe is now a condominium.

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